In the 76-year history of the Tony Awards, no openly nonbinary performer had ever won Broadway’s biggest prize.
But that changed dramatically Sunday night when Lynn native Alex Newell won the Tony for best featured actor in a musical, followed a short while later by J. Harrison Ghee’s victory as best lead actor in a musical. Both performers identify as nonbinary.
Newell plays outspoken whiskey distiller Lulu in the unabashedly pun-filled “Shucked,” a musical comedy about a rural community thrust into crisis when the corn crop on which it depends suddenly starts dying.
“Thank you for seeing me, Broadway,” Newell said in their impassioned acceptance speech, adding: “I should not be up here as a queer, nonbinary, fat, Black little baby from Massachusetts. To anyone that thinks they can’t do it, I’m going to look you dead in your face [and say] that you can do anything you put your mind to.”
Ghee was honored with a Tony for their elegant performance in “Some Like It Hot,” an adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic about a pair of musicians, on the run from the mob after witnessing a murder, who disguise themselves as women to perform in an all-female band.
“For every trans, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming human who ever was told you couldn’t be, you couldn’t be seen, this is for you,” said Ghee.
Last year composer Toby Marlow became the first openly nonbinary Tony winner, for best original score for “Six.’’
South Boston native David Lindsay-Abaire and his creative partner, composer Jeanine Tesori, also had a big night Sunday, as their quirkily endearing “Kimberly Akimbo” earned the coveted Tony Award for best musical.
Lindsay-Abaire won for best book of a musical, and he and Tesori won for best original score. Victoria Clark earned a well-deserved Tony as best lead actress in a musical for her portrayal of Kimberly, a New Jersey high schooler who has a rare, progeria-like genetic disorder in which she ages four times faster than normal. Despite her drastically shortened life expectancy, Kimberly insists on her right to joy, and she finds it.
Winner of best featured actress in a musical was Bonnie Milligan, for her hilarious performance as Kimberly’s loose-cannon, non-law-abiding Aunt Debra.
Meanwhile, 85-year-old British playwright Tom Stoppard added another chapter to his legend as his sprawling, deeply personal “Leopoldstadt” was named best play, 55 years after he won his first Tony Award for “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” (He also won three other Tonys, for “The Real Thing,” “Travesties,” and “The Coast of Utopia.”)
“Leopoldstadt” chronicles the lives of several generations of an extended Jewish family in Vienna before, during, and after the Holocaust. Stoppard, who did not discover his Jewish heritage until he was in his mid-50s, has said the play grew out of “self-reproach about seeing my life as a charmed life.” All four of his grandparents were killed by the Nazis.
From the stage, Stoppard said Sunday night: “I’m teeming with emotions which a Chat bot wouldn’t begin to understand."
Brandon Uranowitz was named best featured actor in a play for his work in “Leopoldstadt,” where he played two roles, including Nathan, a family member who survived Auschwitz. Patrick Marber, who helmed “Leopoldstadt,” won for best direction of a play.
Winner of best revival of a play was Suzan-Lori Parks’s riveting “Topdog/Underdog,” about two brothers forebodingly named Lincoln and Booth, locked in a contest of wills and still haunted by their parents’ abandonment when they were young.
“Look at what the spirit can do,” a jubilant Parks said in her acceptance speech, adding: “Theater is the great cure.” She praised director Kenny Leon and actors Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, saying “they played every night like there was no tomorrow.”
Jodie Comer, best known as the assassin in “Killing Eve,” was named best lead actress in a play for her intense solo turn in “Prima Facie” as a criminal defense attorney whose specialty is representing men accused of rape, who then becomes a victim of sexual assault herself.
Sean Hayes (”Will & Grace”) won best lead actor in a play for his raw, wrenching portrayal of the tormented pianist, author, and all-around wit Oscar Levant in Doug Wright’s “Good Night, Oscar." Cracked Hayes: “This has got to be the first time an Oscar won a Tony."
“Parade,” a musical about the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory owner, in Georgia in 1915, amid a tide of antisemitism, won for best revival of a musical, and Michael Arden, who helmed “Parade,” won for best direction of a musical.
Miriam Silverman earned the Tony for best featured actress in a play for her portrayal of Mavis, a bigoted snob in the late Lorraine Hansberry’s “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.” In her acceptance speech, Silverman called Hansberry “a visionary, a genius.”
Hosted for the second year in a row by Oscar winner and former Tony nominee Ariana DeBose, Sunday’s Tonys were recognizing excellence in the 2022/2023 Broadway season. Shows that opened at any of the 41 Broadway theaters from May 5, 2022, to April 27, 2023, were eligible.
It was not a smooth path leading up to Sunday’s ceremony. Fallout from the strike by the Writers Guild of America forced the Tonys to go forward without scripted routines, intros for presenters, or an opening number that Lin-Manuel Miranda had been composing.
The show began Sunday night with a light-hearted allusion to the unscripted format, with DeBose opening a script and finding it filled with nothing but blank pages. “We don’t have a script, you guys,” DeBose told the audience. “I’m live and unscripted — you’re welcome. So to anyone who thought last year might’ve been a bit unhinged, to them I say: ‘Darlings, buckle up.’ "
“A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical,” which premiered last summer at Boston’s Emerson Colonial Theatre before moving to Broadway, did not earn any Tony nominations. But Will Swenson, who plays the title role, sang “Sweet Caroline” at Sunday’s ceremony — and the Tony audience chimed in with “So good, so good, so good” as if they were sitting at Fenway Park.